On a sunny autumn mid-morning Friday, a huge howl made me run out of the house I was visiting. I rushed toward the sound, which was coming from the center of the village. The minute I saw the source, I brought myself to a screeching halt. It was a large gathering. A huge mullah — a Shiite cleric — was seated on a chair under the shade of a solitary tree, preaching. Men on one side on the ground took up about a third of a circle, and women covered the ground on the other side. A narrow fire lane separated the fire from the kindling.
I scanned the place quickly to decide my next move. Stay. But sit on that faraway boulder. It is a safe place. You can see and hear things, yet you won’t be part of the ado. You won’t stick out, either. See those three older men seated on that boulder far from the gathering taking turn at the water pipe; see the cluster of young men standing at a distance, gawking. Why aren’t these men participating in the religious event? Are these men dissenters, skeptics, or heathens? I suppose every group has its share of nonconformists. Some little boys are kicking a ball farther out. So sit down and take in the scene.
As I eased myself on the boulder, I wondered how the massive thing ever got where it was — desert as far as the eye can see, miles and miles away from mountains and rivers. I frequently get sidetracked by all the questions that pop up in the echo chamber I carry on my shoulders. Never mind. Take in the show.
I will spare you a detailed report. You can, in a moment of recklessness, book yourself to one of these numerous, frequent Islamic gatherings for firsthand experience.
Briefly, on that Friday, the large mullah was narrating the purported tragic fate of Imam Reza — the eighth Arab Shiite Imam, who is buried in the city of Mashhad in Iran. The mullah was planning to go on a pilgrimage to the imam’s shrine as soon as the God-fearing faithful villagers coughed up enough money for his journey. No, it wasn’t a junket. No, he wasn’t going to Mashhad for a few seeghes — temporary religiously approved marriages that allow a man and a woman to bed together from as little as a few minutes to as long as their hormones rule. He claimed he was going to go to the shrine to personally plead with the holy imam to intercede with God to forgive the sins of his flock. His flock, as wool-less as they were, still needed fleecing from time to time. And no one was more qualified to do the job than the large mullah who occupied the solitary chair. Did the villagers sin so that forgiveness was required?
They indeed must have; otherwise, why would they be condemned to the hell they were in? Would their suffering on earth count for time done in hell? No, they had seen nothing yet, the man was saying. The hell they were in was plenty bad. But the hell to come, as he described it, made the desolate, graceless desert village look like paradise. Everything is relative, I suppose.
The mullah described hell in such horrifying details that it made my skin crawl. I knew I was going to hell. Couldn’t I go to a different hell, please? I dreaded his. He described hell at length and in harrowing details and said only a few words about heaven. He said heaven was a place of unsurpassed beauty and bounty. No work, all play, with rivers of honey and milk and lush fruit and other delectable items for men. What about the women? What do they get? Men saturated to their eyeballs with milk- and honey-fueled passion? Is the next world also men’s?
Talking about heaven, however, was leaping ahead. First, you had to buy your way out of hell before even being considered for admission into heaven, the imam kept saying.
Question: Why did the massive mullah have to go all the way to Mashhad to pray for his riddled-with-sin congregation? Couldn’t he just save the wretched their badly needed coins by praying for them from where he was? Oh, the imam was hard of hearing? You had to get up close? I don’t think even shouting directly in his ears would’ve made the man hear any better. He was dead for over a thousand years. He doesn’t need ears to hear? He is now telepathic? If so, he could receive the supplications just the same from the village. Unless, of course, he decides to ignore them like he has for centuries.
The master crowd-worker played his audience like a sitar. He told them how all those who betrayed the beloved imam burned in God’s inferno full of scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and more….
Be sure to read it all.